First Shown on BBC Parliament, 15 October 2016
Book Review: Christopher Phillips ‘The Battle for Syria’
By Ian Black, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, 11 October 2016
Syria’s war is far from over but it is already the subject of a large number of books – many about the internal dynamics of the conflict or the headline-grabbing jihadis who dominate perceptions of it. Christopher Phillips’ impressively-researched study of its international dimensions is an important contribution to understanding the bleak story so far. Based on interviews with officials and a mass of secondary sources, it identifies and examines the key external components of the worst crisis of the 21stcentury: the fading of American power, Russian assertiveness, regional rivalries and the role of non-state actors from Hezbollah to ISIS.
Phillips’ principal argument is that the Syrian uprising of 2011 – pitting ordinary people against an unforgiving regime – was transformed into a civil war because outside involvement helped escalate and sustain it – and of course still does. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown was followed by other actions that made a significant difference: ‘omni-balancing’ Qatar’s early backing for rebel groups despite its own limited capacity; ill-considered US and Western calls for the Syrian president’s departure; Turkish and Saudi sponsorship of anti-Assad forces; and, from the start, Russian and Iranian support for Damascus that raised the stakes and created an asymmetry of strategic commitment that persists to this day.
Inaction mattered too – whether in the lack of adequate assistance for the rebels or Barack Obama’s failure to response to the breaching of his famous ‘red line’ when Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013. Phillips correctly acknowledges the lingering after-effect of the false prospectus of the 2003 Iraq war on the British parliamentary vote against military action but I think underplays the wider paralysing role of that intervention.
It was the misfortune of Syrians that their chapter of the Arab uprisings opened in what the author succinctly characterises as ‘an era of regional uncertainty as the perception of US hegemony was slowly coming undone’. Obama’s reluctance to get involved may well have made sense after the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but he was unable to manage his allies and, crucially, raised unrealistic expectations amongst Syrians and the Gulf states. Only ISIS, with its transnational agenda, moved him to act.
The landmarks of the crisis are familiar but they are illuminated by some fascinating details: Before 2011 knowledge about Syria was surprisingly limited, so there was insufficient understanding of the differences between its security-obsessed, ‘coup-proofed’ regime and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. In 2009, the US Department of State Syria desk consisted of one official; of 135 Turkish diplomats working on the Arab world, only six spoke Arabic. Francois Hollande’s diplomatic adviser, wedded to the ‘domino theory’ that meant Assad would follow Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, didn’t want to hear the nuanced reports from the well-informed French ambassador in Damascus. Mistaken analysis drove what Phillips calls the ‘escalator of pressure’. Russia, with better intelligence, understood that Assad was more secure than others predicted (or wanted to believe) and that the appetite for western involvement was limited.
If underestimating Assad’s durability was a key failure, that was compounded by over-stating the capabilities and cohesiveness of the opposition. Sponsorship by rivals who prioritised their own agendas, misleading extrapolations from the Libyan example, inevitable tensions between the external opposition and fighters on the ground, and the exclusion of the Kurds were all highly damaging. Policy towards the armed rebel groups was incoherent: despite vast expenditure, no foreign state was able to gain leverage over them.
International and regional institutions performed little better, Phillips argues. The short-lived Arab League mission to Syria was led by a Sudanese general linked to the genocide in Darfur. UN envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi failed to overcome US and Arab resistance to Iran taking part in the 2012 Geneva conference, thus excluding a key player at a sensitive moment. Staffan de Mistura shuttled between parties who refused to even meet each other in Geneva, where the Syrian government delegation specialised in stonewalling and abuse. It has not been a case of third time lucky for the UN. ‘Everybody had their agenda’, in Brahimi’s words, ‘and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all’.
This judicious and measured book stands well back from the Twitter-driven ‘war of narratives’ that has distorted too much media reporting on the Syrian conflict. In the heat and controversy of complex and terrible events, it is helpful to pause and look coolly at the big picture. But it is sobering to contemplate the damning evidence of how outside actors helped fan the flames of ‘an internationalised civil war’ without any end in sight.
By Christopher Phillips for Yale Books, 3 October 2016
Many Syria watchers and US commentators have attributed the US’ relative caution in the conflict as the result of Barack Obama’s personal choices, and hope that a new president would take a more active role. However, President Obama has intervened considerably in the Syria conflict already. He called for Assad’s departure impacting the behaviour of others, supported the armed and political opposition, and sent the US air force into Syria against ISIS. Those who complain about a lack of US intervention, actually mean that Obama has not sent US forces directly against Assad, either to topple him or provide humanitarian relief for civilians attacked in rebel-held areas. Though it has frustrated his critics, both regional allies like Saudi Arabia and members of the US foreign policy establishment, Obama has taken a cold calculated look at how much the Syria conflict impacts US vital interests and concluded that further intervention is not worth the cost.
Would another president have acted differently? In the wake of the failure in Iraq, public appetite in the US for large scale military deployments in the Middle East seems very low, as seen by Obama needing to constantly reassure that the ISIS campaign would not involve ‘boots on the ground’ in any great number. The 2008 financial crisis has also increased the unpopularity of expensive wars for the electorate. Indeed, there is little public support for more military action in Syria outside of the DC Beltway. Moreover, the dynamics of the Middle East have changed, with powers such as Russia and Iran, but also the US’ allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey more willing to challenge US designs on the region and pursue their own policies. Structurally, it is therefore more difficult to take further action in Syria than it was in Iraq in 2003 and the chances of success – elusive in Iraq even with a huge military deployment – are even more limited. This combined with the complex specifics of the Syrian war deterred Obama, and will likely deter the next president as well.
Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas. However, to escalate the US presence sufficiently to pressure Russia and Iran enough to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources and would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US does not see as in its vital interest. Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, following on from John Kerry’s recent negotiations, possibly even ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump to entertain such a potentially humiliating climb down, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war as he still lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria.
Importantly, both Clinton and Trump would face the same structural restraints, domestic and international, faced by Obama. A few cosmetic shifts might occur, especially if Clinton is elected, but US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their re-election prospects. Indeed, neither has made Syria a major campaign issue. Continuing a cautious approach and hoping that the conflict can slowly be reduced and contained by a range of limited military action and diplomacy rather than a dramatic new intervention therefore seems the most probable outcome, whoever is elected.